Ajmal Shahzad: 'I get paid to play the sport I love and see the world – I'm privileged'

Despite a long winter on the road, the all-rounder is still enjoying the adventure of international cricket
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The Independent Online

Expressions of sympathy for the workload of well-paid professional sportsmen tend not to draw many nods of agreement, even in prosperous times, so it is perhaps unwise to suggest that any of the England cricketers signing autographs and pressing the flesh at a kit launch in Enfield might have preferred to be elsewhere.

Nonetheless, given the obvious need to recharge batteries after five months away from home and a steady decline in form, it would be a surprise if showing off the new one-day international uniform at a busy retail park matched everyone's idea of rest. Stuart Broad smiled obligingly as a baby was thrust into his arms by a proud mum with a camera but it was not only the infant wearing a slightly bleary-eyed look.

Yet all such thoughts disappear after a few minutes in the company of Ajmal Shahzad, a fast bowler of searing pace and fierce ambition yet who has somehow managed to reach the age of 25 with his appreciation and gratitude for where his career has taken him so far untainted by even a hint of cynicism.

Last May, when Shahzad attended a reception in Downing Street for England's Twenty20 World Cup winners, he marvelled at seeing street names he had previously known only from his Monopoly board and was wide-eyed at how the door to Number 10 shone in the sun. It is a charm that remains engagingly intact.

His winter, for example, was as long as anyone's and less fulfilling, given that he was a spectator for the entire Ashes series. When he made his appearance in the one-day matches against Australia and was retained for the World Cup, the team's form fell away. But to him it was less of a gruelling episode than another chapter in the continuing adventure of his cricket career.

"It was a long time away from home and I can see how touring might get a bit monotonous for some," he said. "Ask me a few years down the line, when maybe I'll have a couple of children and a wife at home, and I might give you a different answer.

"But for the moment, for me, it is all new and exciting. I'm playing the sport I love, getting paid for it and visiting countries I would otherwise perhaps never see, meeting people I would never meet. I'd never seen Sydney, for example, but I'd heard so much about it. It's a beautiful place. I'm enjoying every minute of it. It is a privilege."

He often mentions family and privilege, his attitude to both of which seems to be another defining characteristic. He still lives in Bradford with his parents, his sister and his four-year-old brother, and speaks enthusiastically about wanting "to take them on this journey with me, to let them enjoy the experience, too".

His father, Mohammed, who hails from the same village in Pakistan that produced the talented but sadly disgraced fast bowler Mohammad Aamer, was successful enough to give Shahzad a private education.

"My father has worked very hard as an accountant and given us everything we wanted," he said. "I enjoy studying and I had good enough grades at GCSE and A-level to win a place at Bradford University."

He might have become a doctor or a chemist, but working with the late Graham Roope, the former Test all-rounder who was coach at Woodhouse Grove School in Leeds, helped Shahzad's cricket flourish, leading ultimately to a place on the Yorkshire staff, a decision to concentrate on his sporting rather than academic talents and a debut in May 2004 that made him the first Yorkshire-born player of Asian extraction to represent the county at senior level, a milestone that he believes has helped remove some of the obstacles preventing the club from tapping into a vast reserve of cricketing talent.

"When I was at the academy there were three Asian lads," he recalled. "It was not because of any 'racism' behind it – it was just that if you were from an Asian background your parents wanted you to go out and work.

"I was privileged in that my dad allowed me to do this but now there are a lot more Asians coming through. Their mums and dads have seen me go through the system and show that if you work hard you can reap the reward.

"There are a lot of very good Asian cricketers in Yorkshire but while they have good skill levels and talent, being successful comes down to dedication, motivation and just working hard. To do that at 17 or 18 is difficult because you cut yourself off and people don't see you as part of their social network any more. Not all young Asians – not just Asians – want to do that. But I hope I am someone they can look up to."

But for injuries at key moments in his development – the latest, to a hamstring, curtailed his involvement in the World Cup and has delayed his return to the Yorkshire side – Shahzad might have broken into the senior England team sooner than last year, when he made his debut in a Twenty20 international against Pakistan in Dubai, taking two wickets in his first over.

Yet he is honing his gifts rapidly and, setting aside results, the winter has produced benefits on a personal level – and his highlight was not the one he is most asked about.

"People always talk about my six in the last over against India but for me it was the three wickets I took against Bangladesh. I have to say those three balls were absolute jaffas. They would probably have got the best batsman in the world out – and they came out of my hand.

"I wanted to put them balls on a length and reverse swing away and they came out perfectly. I have got a few different deliveries – outswingers, inswingers, slower balls – and I'm working on more. What you want is to be able to bowl any of them at will, without really thinking about it.

"I've got a lot of improvement in me – if I hadn't I'd be the best bowler in the world. I'd like to become an established Test player and have longevity in my career but that will only come from hard graft."

Ajmal Shahzad was launching the new England one-day international kit, supplied by adidas at JJB Sports. Replica shirts are available at any JJB store or online at www.jjbsports.com